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Fintech Companies Raised a Record $39.6 Billion in 2018: Research

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Venture capital-backed financial technology companies raised a record $39.57 billion from investors globally in 2018, up 120 percent from the previous year, according to research by data provider CB Insights published on Tuesday.

Funding was raised through 1,707 deals, up from 1,480 in 2017, the research said.

The surge in funding was due in large part to 52 mega-rounds, or investments larger than $100 million, which were worth $24.88 billion combined, the research said.

A $14 billion investment in Ant Financial, the payment affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, accounted for 35 percent of total fintech funding alone last year, the research said.

In the last three months of the year, five companies joined the coveted ranks of fintech “unicorns”, or companies valued at more than $1 billion. These include credit card provider Brex, digital bank Monzo and data aggregator Plaid.

Venture capital investors have been pouring billions of dollars into fintech companies, in the hopes that they can gain market share from incumbent financial institutions by offering easier to use and cheaper digital financial services.

Fintechs have emerged globally across all sectors of finance, including lending, banking and wealth management.

While the large rounds minted new unicorns and led funding to hit a record high in 2018, CB Insights estimates these will likely delay initial public offerings.

“IPO activity is likely to remain lackluster in 2019,” the research reads.

Asia saw the biggest jump in number of deals in 2018, growing 38 percent from the previous year and accounting for a record $22.65 billion, according to the study.

In the United States, fintechs raised a record $11.89 billion through 659 investments, while the number of deals dropped in Europe, but funding reached a record $3.53 billion. -Reuters

-Anna Irrera

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Current Affairs

South Africa’s Eskom Extends Power Cuts, Needs Bailout By April

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South African power utility Eskom cut electricity for a fourth straight day on Wednesday, as the department of public enterprises warned the struggling state-owned firm needed a cash injection by April to survive.

Eskom, which supplies more than 90 percent of the power in Africa’s most industrialized economy but is laden with more than $30 billion of debt, is battling a shortage of capacity that threatens to derail government plans to lift the sluggish economy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week that the government would support Eskom’s balance sheet but said details would be announced in a budget speech by the finance minister on Feb. 20.

The department of public enterprises, which oversees Eskom, said in a presentation to parliament that Eskom was technically insolvent and would “cease to exist” at the current trajectory by April, unless it gets the bailout. The minister, Pravin Gordhan, however, ruled out privatization of the utility.

The department also said Eskom was struggling to keep its mainly coal-fired plants running due to coal shortages and poor maintenance, with 40 percent of breakdowns a result of human error.

The cash-strapped company said it would cut 3,000 megawatts (MW) of power from the national grid from 0600 GMT on Wednesday, likely until 2100 GMT. This follows a similar cut on Tuesday and 4,000 MW on Monday in the worst power cuts seen in several years that drove the rand currency down on Monday. The rand was slightly firmer against the U.S. dollar on Wednesday.

Around a third of Eskom’s 45,000 MW capacity was offline on Tuesday.

The power cuts are prompting frustration among ordinary South Africans, with traffic gridlock in major cities during rush hours as traffic lights stop working and switched-off fans leave office workers sweating in the summer heat.

Business owners with no access to backup power sources have also been hit.

“We’re struggling,” said Eunice Mashaba, a manager of a textile shop north of Johannesburg who said he had to close the shop early on Tuesday because most customers do not carry cash but have to rely on debit or credit cards for payment.

Ramaphosa announced a plan last week to split Eskom into three separate entities in an effort to make it more efficient as he tries to lift the economy before an election in May, but faces opposition from powerful labor unions and from within his ruling African National Congress party. -Reuters

-Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Wendell Roelf

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Economy

A Bad Omen? Emerging Markets ‘Most Crowded Trade’ For First Time

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Investors made a U-turn on emerging markets, naming them the most crowded trade, in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s survey for the first time in its history.

This marked a big reversal from last month, when fund managers said “short EM” was the third most-crowded trade – showing how fast the mood can shift in an uncertain market.

It could prove to be a bad omen for emerging markets, though, as assets named “most crowded” usually sink soon afterwards.

Previous “most crowded” trades have included Bitcoin, and the U.S. FAANG tech stocks, which led the selloff in December.

Emerging-market stocks .MSCIEF are up 7.8 percent so far this year, and flow data on Friday showed investors pumped record amounts of money into emerging stocks and bonds.

Emerging-market assets had a torrid 2018. Crises in Turkey and Argentina ripped through developing countries already suffering from a strong dollar and rising U.S. yields pushing up borrowing costs.

But a dovish turn by the Fed at the start of the year, indicating the world’s top central bank would not raise interest rates as quickly as previously expected, sparked fresh enthusiasm among investors.

Major asset managers and investment banks such as JPMorgan, Citi and BlueBay Asset Management ramped up their exposure to emerging markets in recent weeks..

The Institute of International Finance (IIF) predicted a “wall of money” was set to flood into emerging market assets.

However, there are some indications momentum may be waning. Analyzing flows of its own clients, investment bank Citi noted they had turned cautious on emerging-market assets over the last week, with both real money and leveraged investors pulling out funds following four weeks of inflows.

BAML did not specify whether the “long EM” crowded trade referred to bonds, equities or both.

Outside emerging markets, investors’ main concern remained the possibility of a global trade war. It topped the list of biggest tail risks for the ninth straight month, followed by a slowdown in China, the world’s second-largest economy, and a corporate credit crunch.

Overall, BAML’s February survey – conducted between Feb. 1 and 7, with 218 panelists managing $625 billion in total – showed investor sentiment had hardly improved. Global equity allocations fell to their lowest levels since September, 2016.

“Despite the recent rally, investor sentiment remains bearish,” said Michael Hartnett, chief investment strategist at BAML.

SECULAR STAGNATION

Investors remained worried about the global economy, with 55 percent of those surveyed bearish on both the growth and inflation outlook for the next year.

“Secular stagnation is the consensus view,” BAML strategists wrote.

Following this theme, investors were most positive on cash and, within equities, preferred high-dividend-yielding sectors like pharmaceuticals, consumer discretionary, and real estate investment trusts.

As investors added to their cash allocations, the number of fund managers overweight cash hit its highest level since January, 2009.

The least preferred sectors were those sensitive to the cycle, like energy and industrials – which BAML strategists see as good contrarian investments if “green shoots” appear in the global economy.

Worries about corporate debt were still running high, with this month’s survey showing a new high in the number of investors demanding companies reduce leverage.

Some 46 percent of fund managers find corporate balance sheets to be over-leveraged, the survey found, and 51 percent of investors want companies to use cash flow to improve their balance sheets. That’s the highest percentage since July 2009.

Europe, one of investors’ least-favored regions, showed a slight improvement. A net 5 percent reported being overweight euro zone stocks, from 11 percent underweight last month.

But investors’ reported intention to own European stocks in the next year dropped to six-year lows as the profit outlook for the region continued to lag.

Allocations to UK stocks increased slightly from last month but the UK remained investors’ “consensus underweight”, BAML said. It has been so since February 2016. -Reuters

-Josephine Mason, Helen Reid, and Karin Strohecker

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Explainer: South Africa’s Central Bank – Ownership, Mandate and Independence

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In recent months, various debates about the South African Reserve Bank have focused broadly on three aspects – its shareholding, its mandate and its independence.

The three debates are somewhat convoluted. They are indeed three different issues, but they are interlinked.

Let’s turn to the issue of ownership first.

The South African Reserve Bank is one of only eight central banks in the world with private shareholders. The others are in Belgium, Greece, Italy, Japan, San Marino, Switzerland and Turkey.

The debate about shareholding in South Africa’s Reserve Bank centres around the issue of nationalisation. Some political players, such as the third largest party – the Economic Freedom Fighters – are calling for the ownership of the Bank to be transferred from current private shareholders to the South African government and has tabled a bill in Parliament to achieve this objective.

The issue is very charged. But it’s also confused and not very well understood. There’s an assumption that a change of ownership would automatically mean a change in the role the Bank plays. This isn’t the case because in fact the Bank’s shareholders play no role in its mandate. In that sense it doesn’t matter who the shareholders are. Because they can’t affect its mandate, nationalisation won’t affect the independence of the central bank.

But there are other ways in which the Bank’s ability to do its job can be undermined. This is where the Bank’s primary mandate comes in.

The mandate issue

The mandate of South Africa’s central bank is set out in the Constitution, which says:

The primary objective of the Bank shall be to protect the value of the currency of the Republic of South Africa in the interest of balanced and sustainable economic growth in the Republic.

The Bank also adheres to an inflation target which was put in place in 2000. This requires it to keep inflation within a band of 3% to 6%. The Bank uses monetary policy and interest rate decisions to achieve this objective. In short, when the inflationary trend declines, the interest rate declines and when the inflationary trend increases, the interest rate increases.

The issue of the Bank’s focus on keeping inflation within this band – and the fact that its mandate sets out clearly that managing inflation is it’s core job – is hotly contested.

Those on the left of the political spectrum, including the country’s largest trade union federation, argue that the South African Reserve Bank shouldn’t focus primarily on inflation. Instead, they say, it should also be taking account of economic growth as well as the employment rate in the country.

The Bank’s response has been that its current mandate is broad enough because it says quite clearly that, while managing inflation, it must do so “in the interest of balanced and sustainable economic growth in the Republic”.

For those like myself who oppose a broader mandate, the issue is quite simple: giving the Bank a broader mandate raises the danger that the Bank will take its eye off inflation because it’s having to concentrate on other issues. This, in turn, could lead to rampant inflation.

The Bank’s mandate is crucial in another respect. The SA Reserve Bank’s ability to pursue its mandate without interference from government is how its independence is measured.

South Africa’s central bank has acted on the whim of politicians before. It didn’t end well.

How political interference can hurt

In the 1980s inflation rose dramatically, resulting in the country suffering its highest inflation rates ever: on average about 15% per year for the decade.

Despite the fact that rising prices called for the Bank to act by raising interest rates, it failed to do so on instructions of the government. Inflation wreaked havoc on the earnings of ordinary South Africans, as well as on the value of people’s pensions.

The government’s interference was dramatically brought to light ahead of a by-election in 1984 in a Johannesburg suburb called Primrose. Just prior to the by-election the government instructed the South African Reserve Bank to drop the interest rate. This subsequently became known as the Primrose Prime incident.

Where the focus should be

The debates swirling around the central bank have created uncertainty. This is despite reassurances from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The President needs to do more: he also needs to establish certainty about the executive management of the South African Reserve Bank.

An executive vacancy at the central bank, created by the resignation of one of the Deputy Governors, Francois Groepe, must be filled as a matter of urgency. And the President should make clear his intention to reappoint the Governor, Lesetja Kganyago, and the Deputy Governor, Daniel Mminele, whose terms expire this year.

These appointments are under the purview of the President. The SA Reserve Bank Act stipulates that the President must fill executive positions after consultation with the Minister of Finance and the Bank’s board.

South Africa needs stability at the central bank to ensure a growth trajectory for the country. The President should get the process of filling the vacancy and providing certainty about the future of Kganyago and Mminele underway sooner rather than later. -The Conversation

-Jannie Rossouw: Head of School of Economic & Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand

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